Frustrated family 'in dark' on Novi native being held in Russia

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, who was arrested in Moscow at the end of last year, has asked President Donald Trump to intervene in his case.

Washington — Six months into Michigan resident Paul Whelan’s detention in Moscow, his family has grown increasingly frustrated with the slow crawl of the diplomatic process.

Whelan, 49, of Novi was arrested Dec. 28 in a Moscow hotel room and charged with espionage, which carries up to 20 years in prison in Russia. 

A former U.S. Marine, Whelan has denied the charges against him. His state-appointed lawyers say he was framed when he was handed a flash drive with classified data on it of which he had no knowledge.

His family hoped the U.S. government would quickly help clear up what they considered to be a gross misunderstanding, but instead Whelan has continued to languish in a cell in Lefortovo Prison with any evidence against him still unknown. 

"It is hard to know what the U.S. is doing on his behalf. We have very little communication with them, and when it happens it usually occurs because our sister, Elizabeth, has spent a lot of time lobbying in Washington," said Whelan's twin brother, David.

"We realize that diplomacy is the only thing that will free Paul, and diplomacy takes time and often happens in the dark, rather than the sunlight. We're hopeful that they are taking action on Paul's behalf." 

Whelan himself is also hoping the U.S. government can secure his release, pleading with President Donald Trump from a Moscow courtroom last month to intervene, saying he's the victim of “an absurd political kidnapping.” 

The Trump administration has not responded publicly to Whelan's cry for help, though his family hopes his case was raised with the Russians during the G20 summit in Osaka a couple weeks ago. 

They have not heard, and the Department of State would not comment.

"We do not read out our private diplomatic discussions," a spokesperson said. 

David Whelan, brother of Paul Whelan, poses in his house in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada on January 5, 2019.

The Whelans don't expect Paul's case will be brought to trial this year, though Russia's notoriously opaque legal system makes that hard to predict. 

David Whelan says his family is grateful to U.S. embassy and consular officers in Moscow who monitor and check on Paul's welfare. But the family's own contact with Paul has been limited to letters that have been delayed by months, presumably by the FSB — the successor agency to the KGB that's investigating Whelan. 

"It’s a little like having someone with a terminal disease. You try and help them fight and get whatever treatment and help you can for them, but added onto that you have a complete lack of communication," David Whelan said.

"Everything we communicate is through his lawyers or through the consulates, so that’s been really tough on my parents. ... We just want to bring Paul home." 

Fear of 'ransom' swap

Twins Paul and David Whelan grew up the youngest of four children in Ann Arbor. 

Paul has lived in Michigan most of his life and at the time of his arrest worked as the global security director for the U.S. automobile parts manufacturer BorgWarner in Auburn Hills.

Nearly every weekend, he visited his English-born parents at their home in Manchester, Washtenaw County, said David, who lives near Toronto. 

His family has said Paul was in Moscow in December to attend a wedding. After his arrest, speculation centered on the possibility that Russia hoped to potentially swap Whelan for convicted unregistered Russian agent Maria Butina. 

Last week, the Kremlin signaled interest in a possible prisoner exchange, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov calling on the U.S. to release Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko for Americans serving time in Russia. 

It's unclear if Whelan, who has not been convicted, would be a candidate for a swap. The U.S. government has not publicly weighed in on the possibility. 

David Whelan said it's a "tricky" proposal that the Trump administration may not want to consider.

"Paul has not done anything other than visit Russia. If he is swapped for an arms dealer or drug smuggler, it may appear as a ransom," he said. 

Political motivations

For Ryan Fayhee, the Whelan family's attorney, Ryabkov's suggestion of a prisoner swap confirmed his suspicion that Paul was arrested for purposes of extracting some benefit from the United States. 

The U.S. government could always do more to help recover Whelan, Fayhee said, but officials have become more engaged since January, with the dialogue becoming more substantive and meaningful over time. 

"The public, as well as our representatives in government, the executive and legislative branches, really understand now that Paul is very much the victim here," said Fayhee, a former senior Justice Department national security prosecutor.

"We seem to have gotten the Russians' attention and are really hopeful that whatever the substance of those diplomatic exchanges, that they result in Paul’s return very, very soon, without regard to whether it’s a misunderstanding or otherwise trying to get to the bottom of it."

Paul is plainly not a spy because he doesn't fit the profile, the attorney said.

Aside from Paul's speaking little Russian, the U.S. government wouldn't send someone to engage in intelligence gathering without diplomatic cover, "or you get stuck in these situations," said Fayhee, who worked in the Justice Department's counter-espionage section. 

David Whelan believes his brother is being held for political reasons, but what those are or who wanted him held remain a mystery.

In court in Moscow, Paul has suggested his detention is retaliation for sanctions against Russians, but that's been difficult for the family to confirm. Paul also said FSB investigators are isolating him and pressuring him to confess, so they won't have to produce evidence.

"The notes that he’s sent out suggest that it’s not a national government choice — it was a local police operation," David Whelan said.

"At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter because now the only way to get him out will be for him to go through the process or to be released diplomatically. But the sense that I get is someone wanted to retaliate, and Paul was the easiest target at the time."

Prisoner, not hostage 

The State Department, other U.S. officials and lawmakers have stopped short of describing Paul as wrongfully detained or imprisoned. That language would imply he's a hostage, David Whelan said. 

After meeting with Whelan's sister Elizabeth, National Security Council Adviser John Bolton last month tweeted only that "Russia has provided no evidence of wrongdoing" against Paul.  

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in early January the United States had informed the Russians that if Paul's detention "is not appropriate we will demand his immediate return." 

But a Russian judge last month again extended Paul's detention, this time through the end of August. Next week, he'll have been in prison for 200 days. 

"We continue to monitor Mr. Whelan’s case closely and to press for fair and humane treatment, due process and access to appropriate medical care," a State Department spokesman said Tuesday by email. 

"We urge the Russian government to guarantee a fair and transparent judicial process without undue delay, in accordance with its international legal obligations."

David Whelan said he'd like Americans who are unlawfully detained by foreign governments to get the same level of attention from U.S. officials as hostages held by terrorist groups.

In 2015, the Obama administration set up an FBI-led intra-agency fusion cell that works exclusively on hostage cases, including a State Department envoy to lead up diplomatic negotiations. 

Unlike hostage situations, the Whelan family has found few resources available for Americans detained by foreign governments, and their families, to leverage for their freedom, David said. 

"If Paul had been captured by (Islamic State militants), for example, there might have been a fusion cell that could provide us a communication link to State, so we know what is going on," he said.

"We would know when escalation was happening. We would know if the military was going to be involved, that kind of thing." 

Fayhee said he believes the FBI fusion cell could be adapted to cases like Whelan's, which could benefit from bringing together experts from the investigative, diplomatic, intelligence and victims-rights communities. 

"This is not a kidnapping. It’s more complicated than that, I would argue, and does require a different skill set, but more than a consular affairs officer going and visiting somebody in a cell," the attorney said. 

"It's sad, too, because when this happens it just can't be right to have the family and a guy like me offering services, out there on their own."

The Whelan family is hopeful that legislation in Congress would help by referring credible cases of unlawful detention of U.S. citizens abroad to a special envoy, "regardless of whether the detention is by a foreign government or a non-governmental actor." 

The bipartisan bill, introduced in March, has not yet been taken up in committee. It's named for Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared 12 years ago from a hotel on Iran’s Kish Island.